Disappointment and the Bee

“How many words can we miss before we’re out, Mr. Stortz?”

I cracked the cap of a well-worn hi-lighter.  Pushing the dulled neon tip across the first word on the list, I felt that familiar anxiousness as we began.

Bee day.  I have to confess, word nerd that I am, that I always dread it a little.  Today was our class spelling bee.  We have to pick winners from our classes to participate in the school-wide spelling bee next month.

But the whole thing is just a tough nut.  I remind the class that only a few people will win today.  Losing is a part of life.  A hard part of life.  Disappointment will linger long past the time you’ve asked it to leave.  The thing is, everyone thinks they’re going to win.

Round one ends.  Only six kids remain. Two kids are already crying.  A tough nut, indeed.

One of the sweetest (and brightest) girls I’ve ever taught missed her first word.  She really wanted to win.  And she most definitely could have.  But she didn’t.  She missed her word by one lousy letter.  Her wide-eyed smile faded as quickly as her shoulders slumped.  Tears began to well up along the rims of her eyes.  She became visibly upset and couldn’t hold back her tears.  I told her we could talk in the hallway after the spelling bee was over.  Definitely a tough nut.

Ten minutes later we were talking out in the hall.  Her crying had eased a bit.  She told me how upset she was with herself.  The more I listened, the more I could feel her frustration.  I pulled her close and put my arm around her as we spoke.  I told her that disappointment is okay to feel- just don’t let it consume you.  I reminded her of all her accomplishments this year, and told her how everyone still cared about her.  She went down to the restroom to wash off her face.  I think she was feeling a little better, although I’m not sure I was.

A little later, she trotted over to ask me a question about the novel she is reading.  Her eyes were wide and her smile was sweet once more.  Disappointment is certainly a tough nut, but one that must be cracked.

A Gas Station Sandwich

I was happily enjoying my gas station sandwich during my 20 minute lunch. I like to call them power lunches when I bring in outside food- even if it’s from a gas station. It just makes me feel better about life.

My team was chatting with a substitute at our table. After relaying a story about his visit to a Comic-Con, he asked me what I did for fun. I had to stop and think about that for a minute. Actually, I didn’t answer him for long enough that he answered for me. “You mean you don’t do anything for fun?” I joked with him and asked if laundry and driving my kids around counted. Humor is my default defense mechanism when I’m uncomfortable.

I don’t know what it is about me, but I am a magnet for unsolicited advice. I get it constantly from all sorts of people. He told me that I had better find something to do for fun, or I was going to burn out big time.

The truth is, I have a very hard time making time for anything resembling a hobby or social life. I play my drums once or twice a year. I pick up my guitar every so often. I tried moderating #4thchat for a while. Once upon a time I even updated this blog (kinda) regularly. I guess I watch movies in between breaking up my childrens’ fights and take an exorbitant amount of time to read short novels. That sorta counts. Right?

I don’t want to burn out, but I don’t know how to take the time to enjoy much for myself. My wife, my four young children, and this teaching gig are already more than I can handle. All I wanted to do was eat my gas station sandwich in peace. I just don’t know…

Compliance Was Not Worth the Price of Admission


I lost it.  I lost my cool today.  I didn't yell.  I didn't raise my voice.  I did something much worse.  I insulted a student.

I'm not one to lose my cool at school.  I’m sad to say that usually happens when I get home.  Today was different.  I had a rough morning getting my kids up and ready.  My school computer was acting up.  And several students were shouting things across the classroom during the morning announcements.  That shouting was the last straw.

I went over and stood between the two shouting girls' tables.  I should've made eye contact and pressed my index finger against my lips.  I should've looked at them with the teacher eye and slowly moved my head back and forth.  I should've whispered, "No talking during announcements."  I should've.  But I didn't.

Instead, I went for the easy kill.  I did something that would make me feel good for about half a second and terrible for the rest of the day.  I used my tongue as a weapon.  I insulted two nine-year-old girls.  I said something to the effect of, "Did you release your brain into the wild this weekend?  Why are you shouting during the announcements?"  Wow.  It's even worse when I type the words out.  Way to go, teacher of the year…

I called the girls over to my desk when the announcements were over.  In earshot of the class, I apologized to my students.  I told them that I was very sorry for saying that to them.  They should not have been hollering, but I should have handled that much better. 

One girl said, "That's okay, Mr. Stortz.  We'll do better tomorrow."  The other girl looked at me for a moment.  For the first time I noticed tears pooling near the bottom of her red-rimmed eyes.  Her eyes met mine.  She nodded and went back to her seat as she wiped her tears with the back of her hand.  I wanted to crawl into the bottom of my file cabinet and hide until lunch.  Then I wanted to crawl into my lunch bag and hide until tomorrow.  I’ve rarely felt worse in my years of teaching.

Well, I got what I wanted- silence during the announcements.  But at what price?  Their compliance was not worth the price of admission.  I took out a huge withdrawal from those girls today.  It's going to take a while to get us back to ground zero.  If I truly believe that great learning happens in the context of great relationships, then I've got some work to do on these relationships.  I'd better get started.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruits.”
-Proverbs 18:21

Stripped Learning

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Cue the Imperial Death March

Testing day.  It’s finally here.  For the last week, my class has been going through labor pains as we prepare for the inevitable day of our state writing test. 

We are in our room this morning, but it’s different.  The whiteboard is blank,  The SMART Board and computers are off.  Our learning artifacts on the walls have all been removed or covered by dull butcher paper.  The fluorescent lights are fully on.  The desks are all in rows facing the front.  It’s still our classroom, but it’s different.  It’s been stripped.  Not only physically stripped, but stripped of its dignity.

Why the formality?  Why the radical transformation?  This environment is not how I teach the students, so why must it be how I assess them?

I caught myself a few times lately saying things like, “When this is over, we can get back to real writing.”  The state test is, unfortunately, real.  It’s just not authentic.  It’s easy to forget the difference.

*     *     *

I paced the room, both anxious and confident, as I actively monitored the students.  I knew many of them were fighting the feeling of being trapped and constrained, just like I was.  Some students sped through, and others took their time.  But, in the end, I’m not completely sure it mattered. The hour hand took six trips around the clock, and it was all over.  The fear, anxiety, and tears came to a close.

Each of my students will now get a number- one number assigned to their learning.  This number is assigned from one day out of their lives.  It reduces their learning down to a quantifiable digit.  This number strips their learning.  It strips it of context and authenticity.  Their learning is stripped of its significance.  There’s a word- significance.  Where does that fit into bubble sheets and scripted prompts?

In our race to the top, there’s pressure to quantify as much as possible, whether that number represents significance or not.  But, we must never forget that there is a face behind that number.  It’s a face of significance.

"It Just Hurts." -The Pain Kids Hide

"There's a dog on the playground, Mr. Stortz!"  Several frantic girls were screaming and rushed over to me at recess today.  This usually happens a few times a year.  I looked around and didn't see anything.  The girls pointed to the other end of the soccer field where a man was letting kids pet his dog through the bars of our black iron fence.  This was definitely a no -no.

As I walked over to put a stop to this unauthorized dog petting, a soccer ball whizzed by the back of my head.  I had forgotten how lively the soccer field could be.  The man had already walked off by the time I reached the scene.  I cautioned the students about petting strange dogs and reminded them to be safe.  

I began walking back to my area when I heard the tiny yelp of ten year old girl.  I turned around to see one of my students hunched over and rubbing her shin.  She had just been pelted with a soccer ball.  I asked her if she was all right.  She winced, but assured me that she fine.  She's a tough girl.  I'm sure it hurt, but I knew she would be okay.

Fast -forward ten minutes.  My patrol took me towards the side doors of the school.  I walked past one of the squared brick columns and found the girl who had been hit by the soccer ball earlier.  She was sitting with her back against the rough brick, arms wrapped around her legs and her chin resting on her knees.  Her eyes were red and a little puffy.  

I asked if she was okay.  She sniffed and gave me a few short nods.  A little girl in tears is practically my Bat -Signal for shifting into dad mode.  I looked at her again and asked if she was sure.  Tears began flowing as she mumbled, "It just hurts."  She could no longer hide the pain.  Immediately, I knelt down and rubbed her shoulder.  I asked if she would show me her leg.  It seemed fine.  I assured her that things would be all right; just to give it a little time.

*          *          *

I thought about those words today- "It just hurts."  I wonder how many students in my class are hurting?  Not from soccer balls, but from much deeper pain.  How many children are going through divorce, hunger, abuse, neglect, or bullying?   How many kids are hurting and trying to hide it?  How many students are trying to be tough and not show their pain?

That pain is where I need to begin with some students.  What can I do?  Where can I help?   I don't want them to hurt, and I certainly don't want them to be hurting and hide it.    

"It just hurts."

Maybe learning when to use a comma before a conjunction isn't so important.